Friday, February 10, 2017


At least one priest is still calling it a konbento , and this is a young priest, at that.

When I was growing up, even the stateside priests called it the konbento.

In Chamorro, the konbento is the priest's house at the parish. Many people now just call it the rectory, and, at the Cathedral, the pastoral center.

In English, there are half a dozen names for the residence of the clergy at a church or parish. In Ireland, one can immediately tell if one is referring to a Protestant church or to a Catholic church simply by how one calls the clergy residence. In Ireland of long ago, one went to a Catholic presbytery and to a Protestant rectory.

The word konbento comes from the Spanish convento. That itself is taken from the Latin conventus, from convenire, to "come together," an "assembly." It was applied to a religious house, where religious persons came to live together under one roof. Monks in their house, priests in theirs, nuns in theirs and so on. This is where we get the English word convent, which in English means a house for women religious (nuns or sisters).

But the Spanish word convento was applied to more than just houses for women religious. A home for friars was also called a convento, as was the priest's house in a parish. This is how konbento entered the Chamorro language, and with only one meaning - the priest's house in a parish - since our islands did not have friaries for men nor convents for women until well into the American era.

Spanish records sometimes called the priest's house the casa parroquial, the parish house. But, among Chamorros, only one word was used for that - the konbento.

When we finally had a friary in our islands as well as sisters' convents, we reverted to the English names for these place (friary, convent), even though, in Spanish, convento can mean a friary or a sisters' convent. Sadly, not in Chamorro. If we said in Chamorro that sister lived in a konbento, people would be scandalized. Our historical lack of friaries and sisters' convents till after the war means that the meaning of konbento was frozen into one meaning alone.

In Spain, this friary can be called a convento. But not in the Marianas.

It's funny how convent and konbento should mean the same thing, but not in Chamorro. A sisters' convent could never be called a konbento in Chamorro.

The Malesso Konbento

In the Marianas, the konbento was not just the house for the priest working in that parish. Of course it was also his office, basically a place to store the sacramental records (baptisms, weddings, etc.). But, as we can see in the picture of the Malesso' Konbento, it had a large bodega or basement, which was used to store supplies but also to shelter families from typhoons. Poor families living in weaker homes found shelter in the bodega at the Malesso' Konbento even as late as Typhoon Karen in 1962.

In some places in the Marianas, the konbento was the only structure in the village built of mampostería (stone and mortar mix) which gave better protection against storms than wooden and thatched structures.

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